Storm surge data go online

Meteorologists and homeowners alike can use Hurricane Center site

Staff WriterMay 7, 2009 

National Hurricane Center meteorologists will have a new tool this season to help emergency managers determine how likely their areas are to be flooded by surging seawater in a hurricane.

Homeowners, too, will be able to use the storm surge probability indicator, which will combine graphic computer modeling with Google mapping to let someone find, for example, the likelihood that a storm will bring an 8-foot surge along a stretch of the Outer Banks.

Jamie Rhome, storm surge specialist, explained the system Wednesday while he and others from the National Hurricane Center in Florida visited Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

In the past, Rhome said, meteorologists gave out the information as three- or four-sentence advisories.

"Some things just don't lend themselves to text," Rhome said, adding that the graphic shows what a storm surge looks like. The project is called SLOSH, for Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes, and will be available on the National Hurricane Center's web site, www.nhc.noaa.gov.

Storm surge is often the mostly deadly aspect of a hurricane; of the estimated 1,500 people killed by Hurricane Katrina, Rhome said, the majority died as a result of the massive amount of seawater driven ashore by the storm. The flatter the slope of the land, the more dramatic the effect of the surge.

The probability indicator will use about 250 different computer models of a storm, accounting for different sizes, wind strengths and paths of travel, and will allow users to determine the likelihood of flooding. For example, it might predict a 60 percent chance of a 9-foot surge, suggesting that the owner of a beachfront house on 8-foot pilings might want to take precautions.

Rhome was on hand during a visit by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Hunter, an aircraft scientists use to explore tropical storms and understand how they work.

The Lockheed WP-3D Orion, dubbed Miss Piggy, is one of two Hurricane Hunters in NOAA's fleet. The other is nicknamed Kermit.

The plane was parked on the tarmac behind the general aviation terminal at RDU, where it attracted a steady stream of aviation and weather buffs. They got quick tutorials on how meteorologists and other scientists gather and interpret information about a hurricane as the plane flies through it.

Bill Read, director of NOAA's Tropical Prediction Center, which includes the National Hurricane Center, said North Carolina and other Atlantic coast states must be vigilant about keeping residents alert to the dangers of hurricanes. If too many years pass without a direct hit from a storm, Read said, people forget how important it is to get out of the way when one is coming.

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989

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